What is the Heart?

Cave of the Heart
September 13, 2021

Trika Shaivism gives primacy to sadhanas of the heart space. Why is this? A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

Out of those traditions that I've studied in, Trika Shaivism has the most emphasis on the heart. So the basic View of the heart is that it is everywhere. That wisdom itself is emanating from something we could call the heart or the heart space, and that that heart space is everywhere.

And why the heart, you might ask?

Why not just wisdom emanating from space? Or something like that, which might be more typical. Because the fundamental nature of this reality, its fundamental way of being, is beneficence. And you could say kindness or compassion, but those words wouldn't really cover all of it.

When you encounter the nature of reality through your sadhana directly, not just conceptually but experientially, what you encounter is tremendous compassion and mercy and kindness and sweetness. Goodness. You could say these are all feelings or virtues or wisdoms that we associate with the heart.

However, I think in Trika Shaivism it would be said, we associate with them with the heart because this is the heart of reality, the ultimate nature of reality, through this alive reality.

So our own heart space, which is in the center of our chest, again, it's called hridaya akasha—it's also in the Trika tradition called the Cave of the Heart—is a living symbol of that heart of wisdom everywhere.

So everything that's happening, cosmological on a reality wide scale is reiterated or recapitulated in our bodies with various symbolic structures in our bodies. They're not symbolic in the sense that it stands for something. They're what I call living symbols, symbols that are an aspect of what they're symbolizing.

There's a real, direct, existential connection between our heart space and that heart of reality that is emanating sweetness and compassion from everywhere.

When we want to discover those, we go to the heart. And there are many practices in Trika Shaivism that involve that heart space more so than in other traditions that I've studied. It doesn't mean that other traditions don't discover the same wisdom virtues or also talk about the heart it’s just more of a focus on that in Trika Shaivism. And I think it's one of the reasons this is my main tradition.

When someone asks you to talk about yourself, you will often say I—you know, you'll put your hand here [gestures to the heart]. You won't go I where your mind is, where your brain is.

We live in a very brain centered culture and in the traditions that I've studied in the brain is basically just considered to be a lump of kapha that has to do with memory and cognition. But actual wisdom is emanating from the heart space. And that's where we discover it.

When energy rises through the subtle channels and when the heart opens more, that's when we discover that universal love, universal compassion, where we're no longer compartmentalizing. Well I feel compassion for you and I love you, but not that other person. Forget it. That jerk. No, no way.

Those kinds of compartmentalizations of those cosmic virtues like compassion are coming through us, but once the heart becomes less obscured, then we start to experience the universalization of all those wisdom virtues. The obscurations are only of one kind, and this is pretty unique to Trika Shaivism.

The only obscuration is limited access to wisdom.

This is almost a direct quote from Abhinavagupta, one of the founders of this tradition. The only obscuration is limited access to wisdom.

Now, why would the founders of this tradition, at least the ones that founded it in writing, once a tradition gets into books, into written form, it's already sort of in its mid-life. Right? We just need to remember that, that the books are not the origin of the tradition. But in any case, this is where we have contact with the written view of the tradition.

Why is there this insistence on saying that the only limitation is limited access to wisdom? Why bother underlining that so many times, as happens in the tradition?

This is because those siddhas who were writing about the tradition between, say, the 5th and the 12th centuries were writing in a context where there were many other spiritual traditions, including other forms of Hinduism and lots of forms of Buddhism and Sikhism and Jainism and whatever other -isms there were at the time, I don't know, Sufi. There were Sufi practitioners in the area of Kashmir.

They were, in a sense, silently arguing with those traditions who said that we have faults and that we have sins and that we are damaged or that there is evil. Or that we behave the way we do because we're evil or bad, or we have faults or we have sin or we're under some sort of illusion or something like that. All of these View teachings, these points of view of these other traditions are being argued with in a kind of subtle way by underlining this idea that the only limitation is limited access to wisdom.

So not only is that saying in a kind of understated way that we are never anything but good in that essential way because we're made of God, there is no evil—that is a big part of the View of this tradition. There is no fault. There is simply limited access to wisdom, and that limited access is a completely natural occurrence.

It doesn't occur because we were bad at some point, and then God smites at us with his limitation sword, and told us, no, you have to show up in this—you know, with these horrible limitations. These limitations are an absolutely natural part of the process of creation.

And in fact, all of this crazy, crazy diversity of all people in all worlds, and all beings, and all cities, and all towns, and all plants, and all animals, and all bodies of water, and all topographies, and all skies, and all occurrences—none of this could occur without this process of limitation. So the tool that this reality is using to create this diversity of experiences is the tool of limitation.

There is an exact analogy to the way that an artist works.

You cannot make a pot out of all clay. You have to take some away in order to have a pot. So you could say, well, that pot has limited access to the universe of all clay, but without having been limited to being a pot, we would have no pot. Right? So limitation is the tool of the artist.

And if nothing else, this reality is an artist and it's carving out of all knowledge, all wisdom, all spaces, all times, all possibilities. It's limiting us to this experience of form and circumstance in order to have diversity and the enjoyment of diversity.

We as human beings have built into us a knowledge that we are limited, and that knowledge that we are limited gets expressed in every single person via a feeling of something is missing or lack and a yearning for something else. Every single human being has some experience of this yearning for more. It could be more food, more cars, more sex, more donuts, you know? Or it could be more self understanding, more wisdom, more knowledge, more skill, more compassion.

So these desires for more, which are sort of predicated on an intuitive and correct insight that we have limitations, are on a continuum. So there's desires and yearnings that are very, very gross. And then there's desires and yearnings for spiritual awakening. They're on a continuum.

The spiritual practices that we do are given to us as part of the package of this yearning. We come in with a little kit, you know, it's called our body, energy, and mind—it’s part of that kit. The fuel is our yearning, our desire and our inherent, inbuilt perception that something is lacking.

And, of course, a lot of traditions build up a whole other story about this experience of the feeling of lacking—that we're actually inherently flawed and we actually are lacking goodness, some of us. You know, we deserve to be punished or rewarded depending on how we show up. So those are like other stories that are built around the same feeling of lack or insufficiency.

But we come in like this package where we have our body, energy, and mind, which are tools to work, with our vehicles. And then we have our yearning, which is the fuel. And then we have our traditions and our teachers and our life circumstances, which are the path.

And they're all concocted by the same alive aware reality it's like Amazon, but only one product. [laughs] This appearance of a path of awakening.

And as you can see, because our body, energy, and mind and our unique circumstances and our unique dimension as human beings, and all the traditions, all the texts, all the practices, all the views and all the yearning is all made of the body of the same Lord. That none of it is actually anything but a self-expression of that one alive aware reality.

None of it exists outside of that alive aware reality. None of it is independent of that. And none of us are ever separate from that. So there is actually nowhere to go and no path.

It's like a giant amusement park happening within the body and the maker of the amusement park.

Now, of course, showing up as humans with our unique human dimension, we have this horrible attachment—in our human realm vision—which is an attachment to things being meaningful and significant. And I've often felt that the human realm is—they should rename it the earnest realm. Everyone is so earnest about everything.

And this is one of the things that our spiritual practice cures us of, eventually. But anyway, until then, our traditions make room for that earnestness, and teachers appear to take us very seriously. In fact, they take themselves very seriously most of the time. [laughs]

And then we're sort of left with this question, if we're still stuck in earnestness, meaningfulness and significance and importance—everything has to be important, significant and meaningful—then we're left with this question of why are we doing this at all? And the main reason is because that's how we were made. We were made to do this and to play this game. And within that game, we have a deep, deep, deep yearning to find out who we are and what's going on here.

Eventually, all other longings, all other desires, all other questions go away, and we're left with that one yearning, that one question to find out who we are and what is happening here and to develop more skill in being here and to be more fully self expressive, as this reality is. To become more like Lord Shiva in our human condition. And that really is when we get into the path of no return, when we are in that desire, in that bhava.

And we realize that the nature of the game, of the removal of this limitation, of access to wisdom, that the reason for it, the nature of it, is simply the unbelievable enjoyment of rediscovering that wisdom. And that's it.

So the first step to enlightenment is to simply lighten up. [laughs]

Not just be saying anything about myself, because I know I laugh a lot. But when I meet teachers or teachers online who are like, you know, I'm just like down, click. Move on. [laughs]

So it sounds like the path is really some what of a path of rediscovering your curiosity, like your innate curiosity and interest?

Yeah, the path is one of rediscovering your innate curiosity.

What happens is when our desire, our yearning, and our feeling of something's missing is too compressed and too under tension, too limited, then it doesn't feel like it's about curiosity. It feels like just greed or neediness or I must have this to be happy.

There's infinite permutations of it, but the open-ended curiosity, part of it gets kind of squashed in the earlier parts of that continuum. Right? Because you're sure you know what you want and what you need and the only thing that's going to make you happy. So that really shuts down a lot of things when you have that feeling.

But later, when your senses start to subtilize, and your mind starts to subtilize—and you could also be born this way. People are born in infinite conditions. So I don't want to make any claim, at all, that doing spiritual practice is the only way to experience subtle senses or opening of the heart or anything like that. I don't think that at all. People are in many, many different conditions.

But in any case, for lots of people, there has to be some kind of subtilization in order for that desire itself to be liberated so that it can be more open ended and exploratory and curious. Absolutely.

Along with curiosity, there's also playfulness and experimentation. The more I teach and the more I reflect on the experience that you guys are telling me you're having, and my own experience, the more I realize how experimentation and having an attitude of experimentation is very, very important.

So instead of thinking, you know, how can I do this, think about how can I experiment with this? How can I play with this? How can I experiment with it? Because a lot of my life as a practitioner, you know, the first three quarters of the way in this life was really just like a kind of natural process of experimentation.

In the poem by Lalleshwari, the Kashmiri poet from the 14th century, she says, spend some time just agreeing with what everyone says, no matter what it is. She says, you'll have an interesting result.

So the result of the result of agreeing with what everybody says is that you start to feel all of your knee jerk convictions, and your desire to argue, and your desire to be right, desire to win—are coming up like [….]. And it's very interesting to feel that compulsion. And then if you continue with it, you just start to relax and you start to realize it's just not that important.

Whether anyone knows where I stand on this issue or, [laughs] or whether I win this little argument about the right way to use a whisk or something [laughs] you know? The things that people get so exercised about.

So it's a very, very interesting experiment. And we should approach our everyday life in that spirit when we're doing practice and we're trying to figure out ways to transform our way of being with other people in the world, we can have this attitude of experimentation and be creative.

This is a creative aspect of practice.


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.